We work in a mature field of research and therefore our output can be complex and intellectually challenging. The relevance of our research will never go away but we need to ensure that the generated knowledge is transferred to industry.
I joined the University of Manchester at the end of 1999 and was offered a lectureship in 2003 to join the newly formed Materials Performance Centre, which focuses on nuclear materials. At this stage my background was materials for aeroengine applications ad there was hardly anybody left in the UK with a nuclear materials background. So I was given the chance to develop expertise and set up a UK research activity in materials that encapsulate nuclear fuel in water-cooled reactors. Today, my main research activity focuses on processing and degradation mechanisms in structural materials used by the nuclear, aerospace and oil & gas sectors.
My main interest is to understand the relationship between manufacturing and processing of structural materials and their performance. By structural materials I mean materials that bear a significant load during service. My research typically focuses on zirconium, titanium alloys, nickel-base superalloys and steel. While we have been using these types of materials for many decades, we are still not able to predict their performance in any other way than recording plenty of test data, which are then used to undertake curve fitting for predicting long-term performance. Such approach results in great uncertainty as small variations in the way a material has been produced can have significant effects on its performance. Hence, lifing of safety critical components requires very large safety margins, which reduces the efficiency of the systems we use. For example, some aeroengine components could be significantly lighter without changing the material if we had a more physically based understanding of the relationship between processing and performance. Another example is nuclear fuel assemblies. Here, the nuclear fuel is encapsulated in thin-walled tubes made from zirconium alloys. Today, the lifetime, and therefore energy extracted from a fuel assembly, is not necessarily determined by when the fuel is fully spent but how quickly the encapsulating zirconium tubes degrade in a water-cooled reactor. If we can either reduce the uncertainly in our prediction or use a more physical understanding of material degradation and improve alloy chemistry, we can improve energy extraction to nuclear waste ratio and therefore minimize the production of new nuclear waste.
This type of research is inherently complex and interdisciplinary in nature and requires a team of academics working together. In the field of zirconium technology, we have achieved this by having a number of academics working together and we might now be the largest university-based Zr research group in the word. Evidence of our achievement is that we are going to host the world zirconium symposium at Manchester in 2019.
Increasingly, an important aspect of my role, apart from guiding research, is building research communities that can deliver the world leading research we aspire to. Apart from co-directing the Materials Performance Centre and the Rolls-Royce Nuclear University Technology Centre, I also now champion the Materials Systems for Demanding Environment theme within the Sir Henry Royce Institute.
Cleaner power generation and transport methods will remain an important research driver for the foreseeable future. One of the greatest challenges for us is to continue attracting the best students and researchers who produce the output that is recognized as world leading. We work in a mature field of research and therefore our output can be complex and intellectually challenging. The relevance of our research will never go away but we need to ensure that the generated knowledge is transferred to industry. Industry can tell us what is relevant but we also need to educate our industrial colleagues, as their industrial research labs continue to shrink.